History of the Cossacks

Written by William Cresson
Category: · History

THE level plains and steppes of South Russia were known to the ancients as the broad channel followed by the ebb and flow of every fresh wave of conquest or migration passing between Europe and Asia. The legions of Rome and Byzance found this territory as impossible to occupy by military force as the high seas. The little known history of “Scythia” – from the earliest times until the thirteenth century of the Christian era – presents a confused picture of barbarous tribes pressing one upon another, the stronger driving the weaker before them from the more favoured hunting grounds. Often, voluntarily or by force, the victors included the vanquished in their own “superior” civilization. There are many reasons why it is difficult or impossible to follow with any degree of certainty the national history of these races. “Their long-forgotten quarrels, their interminglings and separations, above all the constant changes in their names and habitat make the study of their history as difficult as it is unprofitable.” (Lesur, Histoire des Kosaques.)
This ignorance of the changes – political and economical – which are constantly taking place along the amorphous racial frontiers of Eastern Europe, has continued to our own times. But at recurrent intervals these Slav borderlands separating the Occident from the Orient become the scene of political upheavals so vast in their consequences that the very foundations of European civilization are shaken in their turn.
The great Tartar invasion which, during the thirteenth century, swept out of Asia and spread across the steppes of Southern Russia, was an occurrence of such magnitude that its echoes travelled to the most distant states of Europe. The arrival of fugitive bands of Khomans, Black Bulgars, and other wild steppe tribesmen at the court of Bela IV, King of Hungary, first spread the fame and terror of these new invaders. From these refugees and their descriptions of the enemy the sovereigns of Christendom learned with horror of the fate which in the short space of a few months had overtaken the most powerful strongholds of the princes of Rus and Muscovy. Even the Poles – whose more civilized and warlike state was generally considered the bulwark separating the “barbarians” of ancient Scythia from the communities of Europe – had been forced to make the best terms possible: by paying a degrading tribute to the invaders. The powers of Europe now beheld upon the frontiers of their own empires an enemy far more redoubtable than the Saracen “infidels” against whom they had waged their mystical crusades. Turning from his dream of rescuing the Holy Sepulchre the Emperor Frederick II exercised all his eloquence to unite the Christian princes in a league against the Mongols. The Roman Pontiff, fearing for the Christian religion, preached a Holy War. Saint Louis prepared to march in person against the barbarians…



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